John Torrey and Plants of the West

John Torrey, 1869 By W. Kurtz. Photo in NYBG Torrey Archive [CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Since I became interested in herbaria several years ago, I’ve discovered a great deal about botany—and about American history as well. My level of ignorance on both was so profound that I had no idea of the close relationship between the identification of the North American flora and the expeditions to discover what lay beyond the East Coast of the United States. I am referring here specifically to 19th-century government-sponsored expeditions. Yes, there were earlier explorations often conducted by colonists like John Bartram or European visitors such as Mark Catesby. But those are topics for another day, as is the great Lewis and Clark Expedition that started a trend which continued for many decades. I am ignoring these worthy subjects in order to home in on the work of a fellow New Yorker, John Torrey (1796-1873). He may not be considered the greatest American botanist of the 19th century—that honor going to Asa Gray—but he definitely would be a close second, in part because he introduced Gray to the world of plant taxonomy.

Torrey himself had his interest in plants nourished by another New York botanist, Amos Eaton, who developed the first botanical teaching laboratory in the US. Torrey received a medical degree from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and practiced medicine for a few years. However, his passion from an early age was for natural history.  At the start of his career a great deal of his energies were given to the Lyceum of Natural History of New York, of which he was a founding member and one of the first curators. In 1819 he published a catalogue of plants growing in and around New York City in preparation for which he kept a Caand A Compendium of the Flora of the Northern and Middle States seven years later. At the same time, he was working with his former student, Edwin James in describing the plants, 481 in all, that James had brought back from the Long Expedition to the Rocky Mountains. This was the type of work that Torrey conducted for many years: not collecting plants himself, but rather studying the collections of others. In 1822, Torrey obtained a position teaching chemistry at the US Military Academy at West Point while he continued his botanical work. He collaborated with Lewis von Schweinitz of North Carolina on sedges as well as mosses. By 1831, Torrey was Professor of Chemistry and Botany at his alma mater in NYC; he also spent several months a year teaching chemistry at Princeton in New Jersey. Neither position was full time, so he needed both to support the growing family he had since marrying Eliza Robinson in 1824. It was in 1833 that he enlisted the assistance of Asa Gray, who had a medical degree but was much more interested in botany than in being a physician.

Gray worked to collect plants and to organize Torrey’s herbarium, while Torrey sailed to Europe, one of his few extensive trips. He wanted to buy a good microscope, and there he could try out a greater variety of models and also inspect the extensive European collections of North American plants. At that time, there was nothing in the US to compare with them. In Paris, he studied André Michaux’s American collections on which the latter based his flora of North America (1803). Torrey also traveled to Britain where he obtained specimens, including some collected by the Scottish botanist David Douglas in Oregon, and talked with William Jackson Hooker (1840) who was publishing a flora of the British territories in North America. Torrey met many of British botany’s luminaries including John Lindley, Robert Brown, and George Bentham, who was working on North American plants as well and being supplied by a number of collectors. This situation was a sore point with Torrey because it meant that many American plants were not described in the US at a time when the country was trying to make a name for itself in many areas, including science.

When Torrey returned home, he continued working with Gray, who by 1834 had moved into the Torrey home. They developed the idea of producing A Flora of North America, several volumes of which were published (Torrey & Gray, 1838-1843), though the project was never finished in part because the task grew significantly thanks to their descriptions of so many new species. When word of their project reached plant collectors and botanists in other states, they were sent many specimens especially since Torrey had done an excellent job of describing the plants James had collected. These contributions came from the likes of Constantine Rafinesque, a noted but eccentric collector, and Charles Short, an avid Kentucky botanist. By this time, plants from several expeditions were also being sent East; five of these were headed by John Frémont who was himself an enthusiastic plant collector. He was accompanied on his expeditions by his wife Jessie, who wrote engaging chronicles of their journeys that were later published (1878) and added to Frémont’s reputation. In the next post, I will describe Torrey’s work on Frémont’s specimens and those of the Wilkes Expedition.


Dupree, A. H. (1959). Asa Gray: American Botanist, Friend of Darwin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Frémont, J. B. (1878). A Year of American Travel. New York: Harper & Bros.

Hooker, W. J. (1840). Flora Boreali-Americana, or the Botany of the Northern Parts of British America. London: H.G. Bohn.

Michaux, A. (1985). Flora boreali-Americana. Paris et Strasbourg, France: Levrault.

Torrey, J. (1819). A Catalogue of Plants, Growing Spontaneously within Thirty Miles of the City of New York. Albany, NY: Lyceum of Natural History of New York.

Torrey, J. (1826). A Compendium of the Flora of the Northern and Middle States. New York, NY: Collins.

Torrey, J., & Gray, A. (1838-1843). A Flora of North America. New York, NY: Wiley and Putnam.

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